Lubbock, Texas — With a defensive efficiency rating among the best in the nation and long, athletic, tough-minded defenders dotting the roster, Texas Tech has developed a well-earned reputation as one of the toughest defensive teams on Kansas’ schedule year in and year out.
But as the 12th-ranked Jayhawks and 14th-ranked Red Raiders prepare to do battle in a pivotal Big 12 Conference clash that will go a long way toward determining each team’s chances of winning the Big 12 regular season title — 7 p.m. tonight at United Supermarkets Arena on ESPN — it’s Tech’s offense, as much as its defense, that has had KU coach Bill Self logging additional hours in the film room.
“Teams that run true motion (offense) are the easiest to prepare for and the hardest to play, because it’s hard to simulate reads,” Self said this week. “If a guy’s piggybacking, you curl it. If he goes ball side, you bump and fade it. It’s hard to simulate those type of deals in practice. You think, well, we’re just going to guard motion. But motion is the hardest thing to guard if (a team) really knows what (it’s) doing.”
The Red Raiders (21-5 overall, 9-4 Big 12) certainly appear to have figured that out in recent weeks.
After spending most of the first 20 games of their season struggling to score and relying on super-sophomore Jarrett Culver (17.7 points per game, 3rd in the Big 12) to lead their attack, the Red Raiders lost three games in a row in mid-January and followed that up with a loss at Kansas on Feb. 2.
In those four losses — Tech’s only other loss came to Duke in New York City — Texas Tech averaged just 58.5 points per game, including a season-low of 45 in a 13-point loss to Kansas State in Manhattan.
Since the loss in Lawrence, the Red Raiders have won four in row and watched their scoring explode to 78 points per game. That turnaround has kept alive their hopes of being the team — or at least one of them — that dethrones Kansas and ends the Jayhawks’ 14-year Big 12 title streak.
So how has Chris Beard’s squad erased its offensive ineptitude? Self has a theory.
“It appears to me that they’re more aggressive on the offensive end, as far as taking quick shots and more guys shooting 3s,” Self said. “They’re getting (scoring) from different people, and, of course, (senior guard Matt) Mooney has been on fire since we played them. I think he was 5-for-5 one game from 3 and they still (have Jarrett Culver). He or Jaxson Hayes will probably be the highest drafted guys in our league if either one of them chooses to come out.”
The Jayhawks (20-6, 9-4) held Texas Tech to 34.4 percent shooting during the meeting in Lawrence, which included a 6-of-28 clip (21.4 percent) from 3-point range. Culver’s 5-of-17 effort from the floor had a lot to do with Tech’s struggles, and Self said KU’s defensive game plan on Culver in the first matchup would serve as a good general philosophy to utilize in today’s rematch.
“I actually thought we guarded them really well the first time,” Self said. “I don’t want to say that they didn’t get comfortable, but we did a good job of not letting them just do what they want to do. … The biggest thing is, you eliminate what you can eliminate. You can eliminate transition, second-chance opportunities, you can play to scouting report. You can do a lot of things that would put you in a better position, regardless of who you’re playing. But it still comes down to you’ve got to guard your man and you’ve really got to communicate defensively.”
One thing the Jayhawks have almost no control of is the wild and crazy atmosphere they’re expecting in Lubbock for this one.
Kansas has played in its share of tough venues so far this season, but raucous crowds at Iowa State, Kansas State and even Arizona State and Kentucky, have created problems for KU’s young lineup, which again figures to include four freshmen in the starting five.
Despite that fact, and all of the turnover issues the Jayhawks have had on the road, Self believes games like this require players of all ages to dig deep and step up to deliver.
“Our road record stinks,” Self said. “We’re 2-6 on the year. Of course, we’ve played some good (teams on the road), but other teams in our league have played good (teams on the road), too, and they’ve had more success. We need to go take our act on the road and play at a very high level. Even if you do that, it doesn’t guarantee winning the game by any stretch. But it certainly puts you in a position where you’re in the game, and that’s where we believe and hope we can be Saturday.”
Both teams enter this one after a full week off, a fact that Self called “fitting” and said should eliminate any excuses by either side.
“Both teams have had ample time to prepare,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”
As for the player perspective on the seven days between games?
“It’s a lot of time,” freshman guard Ochai Agbaji said. “Going from back-to-back games to this is definitely different. But I think it kind of lets us calm down from what we had gone through and really lock in and prepare for what we have next.”
What’s next is arguably the toughest task the Jayhawks have had to date — on the road, against a true contender for the league crown and with time running out and the stakes nearly as high as they can be.
“We’re playing two huge games against two great opponents, the other top two teams in the league besides us. That’s going to be big,” junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said of today’s game against Texas Tech and Monday’s Big Monday battle with current Big 12 leader Kansas State. “It’s probably one of the biggest weeks of my time here at KU.”